Friday, 23 July 2021

Bullying an outsider


Recently, a number of countries have apologised publicly for actions committed in the past [1]. I have always found this odd, as there is no suggestion that the government of the contemporary country was about to repeat the evil of earlier generations, although there is always a risk. 

These acts made me think about whether I need to offer an apology for events in the past. Of course, I cannot do that on behalf of my country and, like all of us, there are a number of actions for which I should have apologised at, or near, the time. Not just on my own behalf, but also for others. One of these comes to mind over and over again. 

Richard Burton (not his real name) came to the Boys' Grammar School I attended during our second year. The school had an excellent academic record and behaviour, on the whole, was good. It was always presented as being a very desirable place to gain an education and this inevitably resulted in complacency. As always happens, there were hierarchies, and some boys were favoured both by masters and by their fellow students, but there was little nastiness. Richard was an outsider and had to find a way into the groups that had already formed and that is never easy. Perhaps he was ill-equipped to do so, for in a short period of time he was the victim of physical attacks and these escalated into what can only be described as violent assaults. If the masters knew about it, they did nothing to stop it, and those of us who spectated were swept up by the thrill of Richard getting another beating and, deep down, probably feeling grateful that it wasn't one of us that was being attacked. It lasted for years, on and off, and I don't know how he coped. 

We didn't know much about Richard’s background, but we did know that he was an outsider and that it was possible that he had moved to our town as a result of some adverse family circumstance. We didn't know, or care, about the reasons for the move, but the awful treatment meted out to him at school must have been misery enough, without any other problems that he had. I wonder what happened to Richard, and whether he was able to overcome the inevitable pain of it all? I still feel guilty for being an onlooker, carrying out my own little bit of taunting, and doing nothing to stop others. I knew the incessant bullying was very wrong and that’s what promotes my continuing sense of guilt. 

It all happened a long time ago (in the 1960s) and I’m sure that bullying is no longer a problem, as the complacency that resulted in such awful attacks must be a thing of the past. Perhaps the school, so proud of celebrating the achievements of its students, should join me in making a belated apology to Richard? But it's too late, isn't it – and, just as in apologies from national governments, what’s the point? 


P.S. The picture at the beginning of this post is of me, by the way, not Richard. It was taken from one of those school photographs that mean such a lot to some people. Fortunately, I was not bullied by my fellow students, only by some members of staff.


Monday, 19 July 2021

Memories of privet in Torbay


In an earlier blog post, I described the wonderful scent of honeysuckle and its reputation for inciting thoughts of love, especially in girls [1]. Another plant that flowers in July is privet, very common as a hedging plant and described by the Royal Horticultural Society as having “panicles of small, often unpleasantly scented white flowers” [2] (see above). This is a subjective judgement, of course, but most people would agree with the RHS, as they walk past flowering privet hedges. 

For me, the smell of privet flowers brings back a very strong childhood memory of trainspotting on summer Saturdays in Torbay. This is what I wrote in Walking with Gosse [3]:  

For me, the constant arrival of trains was exciting. Not because of the crowds of holidaymakers, that were just a blur, but for the chances of trainspotting and seeing locomotives from distant places far beyond Bristol. I don’t know why trainspotting was such a passion for me as a boy, but it was. Even today, the smell of privet flowers reminds me of happy walks through the local park to the railway station and the anticipation of gaining new entries in my Ian Allan Combined Volume. 

I was brought up in Paignton and, as a child, Bristol to me was in the far north. Large numbers of visitors swelled the local population during the summer months and an indication of the amount of holiday traffic is shown in the photograph below (taken from the excellent book Summer Saturdays in the West [4] and showing a typical scene at Torquay from August 1957, the time when I pressed up against the railings at Paignton railway station). On the left, we see a crowded platform of returning holidaymakers about to board their train home, while the opposite platform is empty and awaiting the next delivery of excited passengers coming to start their holiday by the sea. The small locomotive at the rear of the heavy train was needed to assist the train engine in tackling Torre bank and another of these “bankers”, having drifted back from Torre station, waits on the central line ready to buffer up to the rear of the next arrival from Paignton. Once past the bank, there was a clear passage to Newton Abbot, where the lines from Torquay joined those from Plymouth and Cornwall. Newton Abbot was a mecca for trainspotters in those days, as pilot engines were needed over the South Devon banks and the locomotive shed that provided them (code 83A) was adjacent to the station. There was always lots to see, and three years after the time mentioned in the quote above, I still made occasional trips up to Newton Abbot to spend a day trainspotting. They didn’t have the same spell as those of earlier days, perhaps because powerful diesels were starting to appear and, anyway, I was growing away from my childhood passion for collecting numbers. I think my Ian Allan Combined Volume was thrown away. 

The scent of privet doesn’t only evoke memories for people, it also attracts pollinating insects that allow fertilisation of the plant in return for the “gift” of nectar. This association evolved way before humans came on the scene, and privet is also used as a food plant by insects, including the privet hawk moth caterpillar (see below), with the dark berries produced in autumn providing food for birds. It is a successful hedging plant because of its vigorous growth and its ability to tolerate some loss of leaves; strategies that evolved to cope with attacks by insects and other animals. But back to privet flowers: “unpleasantly scented” they may be, but they are special for me. Isn’t it strange how smells, transient as they are, can have such a strong effect on the memory? 

(As an aside, it is also of note that privet has been used in folk medicine for centuries, as a means of reducing inflammation [5]. Studies continue to examine some of the component chemicals in leaves and this may lead to the development of new medicines [5,6].)




[3] Roger S Wotton (2020) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. e-book. 

[4] David StJohn Thomas and Simon Rocksborough Smith (1973) Summer Saturdays in the West. Newton Abbot, David & Charles. 

[5] Anna Macková, Pavel Mučaji, Ute Widowitz and Rudolf Bauer (2013) In vitro anti-inflammatory activity of Ligustrum vulgare extracts and their analytical characterization. Natural Products Communications 8: 1509-1512. 

[6] A. Pieroni, P. Pachaly, Y. Huang, B. Van Poel and A. J. Vlietinck (2000) Studies on anti-complementary activity of extracts and isolated flavones from Ligustrum vulgare and Phillyrea latifolia leaves (Oleaceae). Journal of Ethnopharmacology 70: 213-217.


Friday, 18 June 2021

The beauty of honeysuckle

It’s the time of year when wild honeysuckle is in bloom and walks along country lanes in the UK, especially if taken in the evening, are accompanied by the sweet perfume released by the flowers. I’m not a believer in aromatherapy, but that scent always makes me feel good and the abundant flowers (see below) are also so attractive to the eye. 

If I was a creationist, I would think honeysuckle was designed by God for my enjoyment, but that wonderful scent is to attract pollinating insects – perhaps why it is stronger in the evening, when more pollinators are on the wing. The production of attractants by plants has evolved on many occasions and it is not just the volatile chemicals that we can also smell, flowers often contain markings that guide the pollinating insects, with their UV-sensitive eyesight, to the nectaries where they can feed on sugary secretions. These are another adaptation of the plant to ensure fertilisation, since the insects pick up pollen when feeding and this is transmitted to other flowers. 

The scent of honeysuckle has associations in folklore and there is a tradition that growing the plant around a porch prevents evil spirits from entering a house or cottage. Another old belief is that it is unlucky to bring honeysuckle indoors as the scent of flowers results in erotic dreams, something not favoured by the parents of girls [1]. This association of honeysuckle and love has been celebrated in paintings, whether in the delicate approaches shown by Devis (below, top) and Bristow (below, second) the overt intent shown by Rubens (below, third), or in the wistful sense of longing portrayed by Chowne (below, bottom). It is a sad irony that Chowne died from wounds during the First World War, having joined The Artists’ Rifles. 

Our love of wild honeysuckle has resulted in the cultivation of many different species, the commonest being three varieties of wild woodbine (Lonicera periclymenum), named “Belgica”, “Serotina” and “Graham Thomas”. It is not known whether the honeysuckle shown in the flower paintings of the Dutch Golden Age was wild or cultivated, but it is given status alongside prized garden plants, including some very valuable tulips. Examples of flower paintings by Ruysch (below, upper) and de Heem (below, lower) show honeysuckle sharing a vase with several other flowers, including the very expensive tulips that resulted in Tulipomania [2]. 

In addition to the power of honeysuckle in giving pleasure and in folklore, the plant is used by humans and other animals. Infusions can be made from honeysuckle flowers and the berries contain chemicals that reduce inflammation after topical application [3], providing an explanation for their use in folk remedies. In addition to these anthropocentric uses, the nectar provides a source of energy for many insects, as described above, and the leaves are the sole diet of the white admiral butterfly [4] that can be seen occasionally in woodland clearings where honeysuckle abounds. 

Such lovely plants – such a beautiful scent! 


[1] Steve Roud (2006) The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland. London, Penguin Books. 


[3] Marco Rafael, Lillian Barros, Ana Maria Carvalho, Isabel C. F. R. Ferreira (2011) Topical anti-inflammatory plant species: Bioactivity of Bryonia dioica, Tamus communis and Lonicera periclymenum fruits. Industrial Crops and Products 34: 1447-1454. 




Sources of the illustrations of paintings (in the order shown): 

Devis - 

Bristowe -  

Rubens -  

Chowne -  

Ruysch -  

De Heem -





Tuesday, 8 June 2021

Joining a “pick and shovel” road gang

I had the good fortune of being brought up in Torbay and was thus able to ramble around the wonderful South Devon coast and countryside, sometimes during long walks and sometimes on shorter walks after journeys by train or bus [1]. The joy brought by exploring nature offset what was, at times, an unhappy childhood, marked by the illness, and death, of my mother and the serious illness of my father. Always a sensitive child, I was shy and rather sheltered, but that’s not to say I didn’t rebel. Unlike the other members of my family, I was not a Christian, enjoyed rock and roll (especially the Everly Brothers), and developed a strong interest in Bob Dylan and the folk movement that was such a feature of the early 1960s. 

At the end of a chequered career at Torquay Boys’ Grammar School, it was time to apply to University and I was pleased to receive an offer from the University of Reading that, at the time, was strong in both marine and freshwater biology; the subjects I most wanted to study. There was no guarantee that I would achieve the grades required, especially as I always performed badly in examinations, and I had no contingency plans if I failed to gain a place. 

Leaving school in July 1965, I had to wait for the examination results to be published to find out whether I would be going to Reading, so needed a summer job. I had worked previously as a Christmas postman and had washed dishes in fish and chip restaurants (no dishwashing machines then – and chips were made into an old bath tub!). Fortunately, a good schoolfriend, Trev, suggested that I join him in working for SWEB (South Western Electricity Board), where one of his family was employed. A quarry firm wanted unhindered movement through the country lanes, as their usual route was to be blocked by SWEB roadworks. All traffic was to be monitored going into, and coming from, the diversion that was put in place and, to achieve this objective, Trev and I had a walkie-talkie each and he became “Devlec Red 1” while I was “Devlec Red 2”. We were given red flags and, whenever a lorry was “in section”, we called each other, and leapt out to stop all other traffic until the lorry appeared past one, or other, of us.  We were not as efficient as we should have been and there were occasional failures of the system, so it was not something I enjoyed very much. 

My first six weeks with SWEB were very different and left a strong impression on me: it was a time for which I am still very grateful. I was assigned to work in a gang using picks and shovels to dig trenches and then pulling in cables, re-filling the trenches and then covering the whole with tarmac, tamped down with a “Wacker”. A job lasted several days and each morning began for me with a bus ride to the depot to meet up with the gang, get into the lorry and then drive off to the job. Ernie, the ganger, who was a dour and unsmiling character rode in the cab and the rest of us climbed into the back, sitting on benches that were part of a removable shelter that was then taken off the lorry and served as our “home” for the rest of the day. I cannot find any pictures of one of the SWEB lorries of the time, but ours was similar to the one shown below. It is easy to imagine the ropes being released and the canvas shelter being slid off the back of the lorry of this army truck, just as we did when we reached our destination.

I was very unsure of myself on the first day. I knew that I was reasonably fit, but I had never used a pick and shovel and had a lot to learn about technique. Ernie paired me with Bill who was in his early forties, looked tough, and had probably done a few tours in the Royal Marines. His first comment was “why am I always given the rubbish” and, as can be imagined, that didn’t boost my confidence. It was time to just get on with it and, with guidance from Bill, that’s what I did; with Bill and I taking it in turns with the pick and the shovel (he was later to advise me to slow down a bit…). There were morning and afternoon breaks for strong tea, usually brewed up by Wally, and we brought our own lunches that were consumed with more tea. Breaks were occasions for playing 5 card brag and this was, again, a new experience for me and I learned quickly what was meant by a prial and also “Aqua on the belt” (Ace, King and Queen of the same suit). 

Other members of the gang were Frank, who drove the lorry, Pete, who operated the “gun” (pneumatic drill) and there were others whose names I have, regretfully, forgotten after 56 years. What was clear was that I was accepted by all and I really liked, and respected, my workmates. They probably knew that I was taken on to be “Devlec Red 2” in the weeks to come, and they were certainly aware that this was just a vacation job for me (although I would hope to have stayed on should I fail to get into university). Nevertheless, they were great colleagues to have and I had a happy time working with them – and learning from them. The only negative comment that I remember came after Ernie asked me to accompany Frank to get a supply of tarmac; this involving a drive of several miles through the countryside to the depot at Buckfastleigh. This perk was referred to as “having a Rodney” and Bill didn’t seem best pleased that I was selected for the job. 

When A-level results came out, I knew that I would be leaving the gang and going to university in distant Reading. They were very pleased for me and I know that their feelings were genuine. Although I have never had a sense of privilege and entitlement, I knew that I was fortunate in having opportunities that my mates in the gang did not, and was grateful for their open friendliness. After I left, I came across the gang digging a trench in Torbay Road in Paignton and we were all pleased to see each other and chatted happily. It was the last time I met with a group that had a big impact on me – my first experience of the “real world” (apart from my other part-time jobs). I still look back fondly to those few weeks and wonder what became of Ernie, Frank, Bill, Wally, Pete and the others. I also wonder whether they remembered me with the same affection that I felt for them?


[1] Roger S Wotton (2020) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. e-book.  

Thursday, 20 May 2021

The influence of Sarah Trimmer on young J.M.W.Turner

As a ten-year-old, J.M.W.Turner (JMWT) was sent to live with an uncle in Brentford, probably because his mother was mentally unstable and his sister had a fatal illness. He stayed for about a year [1] and there met Mrs Sarah Trimmer (see above, in a 1790 portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, held in the National Portrait Gallery), becoming a close friend of her son Henry (three years younger than JMWT), who was later to become the vicar of Heston [2]. Henry Trimmer was an artist as well as a priest and it is thought that he received training in drawing from his mother. She was well-qualified to do so, as she was [3]: 

..the only daughter of the artist Joshua Kirby (1716-1774) and his wife, Sarah Bull (c.1718-1775). She was educated by her father and at Mrs Justiner’s School for Young Ladies in Ipswich. In 1755 the family moved to London; acquaintances there included Thomas Gainsborough, Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and William Hogarth. 

A very well-connected lady, then, for an aspiring artist to meet, especially as her father had also been tutor in linear perspective to the Prince of Wales (later George III), a subject that was to interest JMWT. We do not know how frequently JMWT visited the Trimmer home, but Sarah Trimmer’s interests in education, and in art and nature, must have influenced him. Hers was a strong voice in the way children should be taught in the early Nineteenth Century and she published influential books [3]: 

Although Trimmer advocated conservative views, later students of educational methods and children’s books credit her with two innovations that became commonplace in the nineteenth century. She popularized the use of pictorial material in books for children.. [and] ..Trimmer’s other innovation was the use of animals, birds, and the natural world in stories she called fables.  

Perhaps her best-known book was An Easy Introduction to the Knowledge of Nature and Reading the Holy Scriptures adapted to the Capacities of Children published in 1780, five years before JMWT went to stay in Brentford. Given that the book was aimed at children and their education, it must have been a topic of conversation in the Trimmer household and one imagines that JMWT read the book and perhaps discussed its contents with both Henry and Sarah. What would JWMT have made of the following passages [4]: 

The trees and plants in general would die without air; and we should have no winds, which are very useful, as I told you before, in respect to blowing the ships along, and driving the clouds about, so that they may break and fall in different places on the dry land, instead of returning back to the sea, from whence the sun draws the vapours that form them. The wind is a great stream of air, and though it sometimes does mischief, yet it is of great use, as the air would become extremely unwholesome if it were to remain still and motionless. 

Neither is the world all land; for there are vast hollow places between the different kingdoms, and they are filled up with water. The largest waters.. ..are called oceans, lesser ones seas, and there are others yet smaller, which run in among the land, that are called rivers; there are, besides, smaller pieces, called ponds, ditches, brooks and others.. ..These generally spring out of the earth, and are at first only little streams, but run along till they join with others, and are increased by the rains that fall, and so in time become great rivers like the Thames. 

It is likely that it was Sarah Trimmer who took JMWT to Margate [1], accompanying her children, as her son John was ill with consumption and sea air was thought to be good for the health, especially for lung diseases. Imagine then how a woman who could teach drawing, who was familiar with the London art world, who believed in the importance of illustrations in books [3], and who wrote a book about education that encouraged children to look at all aspects of the natural world, would have on JMWT. 

Familiar with ships on the Thames, he now saw the sea, and boats setting sail on longer voyages. These images must have made a strong impression on the young boy and spurred his need to record what he saw. Some watercolour paintings of Margate, from a little after JMWT’s initial visit, survive and one is shown below. I have no idea whether this was one of the pictures that appeared in his father’s shop, and which exposed JMWT’s work to potential buyers and those who could enhance his prospects as a budding artist, but one could easily imagine that such a precocious talent was recognised by those who saw these early works. 

If Sarah Trimmer was an influence on the development of JMWT as an artist, and as a close observer of the natural world, her evangelical Christianity seems to have had a lesser significance. Perhaps JMWT found this kind of religious thinking to be too limiting for his fast-developing vision and revolutionary spirit? 

[1] James Hamilton (1997) Turner: A Life. London, Hodder & Stoughton 


[3] Barbara Brandon Schnorrenberg (2004) Trimmer [née Kirby], Sarah. 

[4] Mrs Trimmer (1780) An Easy Introduction to the Knowledge of Nature and Reading the Holy Scriptures adapted to the Capacities of Children. London, Dodsley.

Friday, 14 May 2021

Underwater flowers


Flowering plants (angiosperms) began to dominate the Earth’s vegetation about 100 million years ago and, while other, more primitive, plants continue to be abundant, the present diversity of angiosperms is remarkable. When thinking of flowering plants, our minds may turn to beautiful garden borders, meadows and occasional clumps of flowers in woods and verges. Yet flowering plants have also invaded water bodies; although this is really a re-invasion as land plant evolved from distant aquatic ancestors.

Anyone visiting a stream draining from chalk strata is impressed by the amount of vegetation growing over its bed and invading from the margins. There are many microscopic algae that are only visible under a microscope, but two common flowering plants often dominate: water cress and water crowfoot. Of the two, water cress grows into the stream from the banks and can extend right across narrow channels, a habit that has been exploited in the development of commercial cress beds fed by water from chalk streams. The bulk of the plant remains above the water surface and this contrasts with water crowfoot, where plants grow in dense stands, rooted into the bed of the stream and affecting its flow pattern. Water crowfoot is a relative of the buttercup and its flowers are very similar in structure, although they are white, rather than yellow, in colour. It is only during flowering that we see water crowfoot above the water surface, although stands can become so dense that, at times of low flow in summer, they may be exposed to the air. They are well adapted to life in flowing water. The drag on the mass of leaves is counteracted by an effective rhizome and root system that ensures anchorage on the stream bed and the plants engineer the stream around them. Stands provide an obstruction to flow that creates channels of faster-moving water between plants and this serves not only to keep the substratum clear of sediment, but the growing leaves are also unaffected by deposition and can thus photosynthesise efficiently. In contrast, the base of the plant is an area of sediment build-up and this includes much organic matter [1] that serves as a source of nutrients - another way in which the plants engineer their habitat to their advantage.

Although water cress and water crowfoot are both aquatic plants, with the former fitting the definition less easily than the latter, seagrasses are truly aquatic. As their name suggests, these plants are marine, spending the whole of their life cycle under water. Seagrasses have a world-wide distribution and are perhaps most commonly associated with tropical seas and, especially, reefs, where the water is clear and there is good light penetration to the substratum, allowing efficient photosynthesis. Nutrients needed for growth taken up by roots and stored in rhizomes that also serve to stabilise soft sediments. Interestingly, seagrasses are more closely related to lilies and ginger than to grasses [2] and their colonisation of soft sediments results in large meadows when conditions for their growth are favourable. These are then grazed upon by many animals and they also form shelter for many others organisms and a substratum for yet more.

Seagrasses are also found commonly in shallow temperate seas that have sufficient transparency to allow the plants to grow. As I grew up by the sea in Torbay, and had a love of Natural History, I knew about seagrasses, but had no idea that there were meadows of the plants so close to some of my collecting spots. Neither did I know that seagrasses were flowering plants. Like many, I thought that seaweeds alone were the dominant marine plants around coasts.

Two of my favourite places to visit in Torbay were Elbury [Elberry] Cove and the rocks below Corbyn’s Head, where I spent time collecting marine creatures for aquarium tanks. [3] Both locations now have interesting and informative signs (see below) describing the importance and susceptibility to damage by boats etc. of the seagrass meadows just offshore. It is likely that Zostera is one of the seagrasses and Henry Gosse mentions this plant when describing the results of dredging a little further up the coast:

Now we have made our offing, and can look well into Teignmouth Harbour, the bluff point of the Ness some four miles distant, scarcely definable now against the land. We pull down sails, set her head for the Orestone Rock [just off Torbay], and drift with the tide. The dredge is hove overboard, paying out some forty fathoms of line, for we have about twelve or fourteen fathoms’ water here, with a nice rough, rubbly bottom, over which, as we hold the line in hand, we feel the iron lip of the dredge grate and rumble, without catches or jumps. Now and then, for a brief space, it goes smoothly, and the hand feels nothing; that is when a patch of sand is crossed, or a bed of zostera, or close-growing sea-weeds, each a good variation for yielding. [4]

As Gosse was a devout Creationist, the presence of flowering plants in soft sediments around marine coasts would be another example of the extraordinary events of the six days in which all living things - and all fossil ones - came into existence. [5] To those of us who cannot share such a view, the presence of flowering seagrasses underwater is another example of the extraordinary powers of evolution.

In terrestrial habitats the fertilisation of ova by pollen is aided by insects, wind or other agents and there have been extraordinary adaptations to ensure that fertilisation is achieved - by evolving nectar and/or scent to attract insects, by evolving elaborate colour patterns that are attractive, by producing pollen in enormous quantities, etc. - yet flowers are retained by seagrasses where neither insects or wind can be involved in pollination. Seagrass plants bear both male and female flowers and the pollen from male flowers is released into the water and thus wafts around the plants. The use of water for fertilisation is, of course, extremely common in many marine organisms, including seaweeds and many animals, and that makes underwater flowers seem less unlikely than on first consideration. Natural History is full of such discoveries and one is always learning something new. That’s the satisfaction of it - that, and the sense of wonder at just what can evolve over millions of years and millions of generations. 

[1] Cotton, J.A., Wharton, G., Bass, J.A.B., Heppell, C.M. and Wotton, R.S. (2006) Plant-water-sediment interactions in lowland permeable streams: investigating the effect of seasonal changes in vegetation cover on flow patterns and sediment accumulation. Geomorphology 77: 320-324.


[3] Roger S Wotton (2020) Walking With Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. e-book.

[4] Philip Henry Gosse (1865) A Year at the Shore. London, Alexander Strahan.

[5] Philip Henry Gosse (1857) Omphalos: an attempt to untie the geological knot. London, John Van Voorst.


The awesome cyanotypes of Anna Atkins


The digital age has made it easy for us to identify plants and animals using selections from the millions of illustrations that are available on the Web. Accessing images of specimens was a much greater challenge in the Nineteenth Century, just when more and more people were becoming interested in Natural History and wanting to identify plants and animals they collected from the countryside or the shore.

One solution to the need for illustration was the used of line drawings, or watercolours, that could be made into plates and thus appear in books. A good example comes in the work of Philip Henry Gosse who was both a scientist and an able artist, so knew exactly which features to portray. Other approaches used real specimens preserved in spirit or by the use of taxidermy, but these were only readily available in Museums and similar collections. Freshly collected plants could be compared with those in herbaria, labelled collections of pressed and dried specimens, but these were not widely available, although many amateurs made their own. However, they were dependent on the herbaria, and illustrations, of experts to ensure accurate identification. Mary Wyatt used herbarium specimens of seaweeds to allow the publication of a necessarily limited number of books to aid identification, while Bradbury and others extended this approach by pressing plants on to lead plates to make an impression. Each of the plates was then coated with copper and could be used to print many copies, some in monochrome and some using colour for even garter realism [1]. Like illustrations made from engravings of other art work, these become available widely [2,3].

Of the many examples of Nature Printing, among the best known are the cyanotypes of Anna Atkins, the daughter of John George Children FRS, for whom she had earlier prepared 250 woodcuts of shells for his translation of a work by Lamarck, the original not being illustrated [4]. Through her father, she had contacts with Herschel and thus the early development of cyanotypes in which chemicals are transformed by light to give a wonderful blue image, with the subject blocking the effect of light and appearing white. With her keen interest in illustration, Anna Atkins made cyanotypes of seaweeds that were then bound into a small number of volumes.

Complete collections of Anna Atkins cyanotypes have become justly famous – and very valuable. I was privileged to look through the large collection that was owned by Frederick John Horniman and now held by the Horniman Museum in London. Each is printed on watermarked Whatman paper, mostly of 1846 and 1849 in the volumes that I saw, and all have a wonderful quality. As aids to identification, they give dimension and the arrangement of fronds of the seaweeds but no natural colour. One would be hard pressed to identify fresh specimens from some illustrations, especially of small algae, or those that are toughened with natural strengthening (see the images below for examples). Mounting specimens that were translucent meant that some surface and internal detail became visible and these cyanotypes are especially impressive. 

Anna Atkins labelled each sheet with their Latin binomial and this would have been written in ink on strips of paper that were then cleared, most probably using highly refined oil. The labels could then be mounted with each alga and their outline is seen clearly in the prints at the Horniman Museum. Whatever their practical use, these images are beautiful works of art from Nature and it was a privilege to see them. Soon to be superseded by photography, they mark an exciting step in the Art – and Science - of Biological Illustration [3].


[1] Roderick Cave (2010) Impressions of Nature: A History of Nature Printing. London, The British Library.






[4] A. E. Gunther (1978) John George Children, F.R.S. (1777-1852) of the British Museum. Mineralogist and reluctant Keeper of Zoology. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) 6: 75-108



I am grateful to Helen Williamson and the Horniman Museum for letting me see these valuable works and for allowing me to reproduce pictures of them in this blog post.


For those wanting to make cyanotypes of their own, a video explaining the technique can be found at: and I recommend Roderick Cave's brilliant book (reference [1] above) as an introduction to all aspects of Nature Printing.